Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

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What are the early symptoms of HIV?

Many people do not develop any symptoms when they first become infected with HIV. Some people, however, have a flu-like illness within two weeks of exposure to the virus. This illness may include fever, headache, rash, and enlarged lymph nodes (tender glands usually felt in the neck and groin). These symptoms usually disappear within a week to a month and are often mistaken for those of another viral infection. During this period people are very infectious and HIV is present in large quantities in genital fluids.

More persistent or severe symptoms may not surface for a decade or more after HIV first enters the body in adults, or within two years in children born with HIV infection. This period of "asymptomatic" infection is highly individual. Some people may have symptoms in a few months, while others may be symptom-free for more than 10 years. During the asymptomatic period, however, the virus is actively multiplying, infecting, and killing immune system cells.

The effect of HIV is most obvious in the decline in the blood levels of your CD4 T cells (also called T4 cells), the immune system's key infection fighters. At the beginning of its life in the human body, the virus disables or destroys these cells without causing symptoms.

As the immune system deteriorates, a variety of complications occur. For many people, their first sign of infection is large lymph nodes or “swollen glands” that may be enlarged for more than three months. Other symptoms often experienced months to years before the onset of AIDS include:

  • lack of energy
  • weight loss
  • frequent fevers and sweats
  • More frequent infections, such as recurrent yeast (thrush) infections, more frequent outbreaks of herpes sores or shingles, or episodes of pneumonia
  • persistent skin rashes or flaky skin
  • pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women that does not respond to treatment

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